Honesty is the best policy for small business bosses supporting employees with cancer

4 January 2017

New research from AXA PPP healthcare suggests managers in smaller sized businesses need an honest, open approach to supporting employees who have, or who have had, cancer back to work.

Returning to work after cancer can be a daunting prospect. As well as the physical effects of cancer and its treatment, such as fatigue, employees may experience psychological or emotional effects, even when they get the ‘all clear’. Workplace support and flexibility can help ease the transition but, for smaller sized firms, this may not be so easy to accommodate.

It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that new research from AXA PPP healthcare* suggests that managers in smaller businesses might need some help when it comes to supporting employees with cancer – and especially in talking with these employees to establish what support is needed. The healthcare company polled 500 UK managers of someone who has or has had cancer, 82 of whom work in organisations employing 10 to 49 people, and found that over half (51 per cent) of the managers in these smaller sized organisations admitted they have never discussed the employee’s cancer with them. In a similar vein, nearly half of these managers (48 per cent) confessed they didn’t know how to talk about cancer – or indeed other illnesses – with employees. These are worrying findings as this lack of dialogue could be limiting managers’ ability to support employees back to work.

To address this, AXA PPP healthcare has prepared some tips to help managers to speak more openly with employees returning to work after cancer treatment.


1. Talk to them while they’re away from work

If an employee diagnosed with cancer is, or is going to be, absent from work, agreeing with them as soon as practicable how and when you’ll be keeping in touch can help to manage their – and your – expectations. Likewise agreeing how they want to talk about their cancer. This should hold you in good stead and should help to ease their transition back to work in due course.

It is therefore encouraging that many managers in smaller sized businesses have been taking a proactive approach to this – of those who have discussed employees’ cancer with them, nearly three quarters (73 per cent) said they’d asked the employee how they wanted to talk about it and discussed it with them.

Evelyn Wallace, Cancer Care Operations Manager at AXA PPP healthcare, comments: “Talking with an employee about their cancer can be hard. Line managers often want to show empathy but also have practicalities to consider – especially in smaller sized businesses where it might be harder to cover for workmates with medical conditions that necessitate having time off. But an open and honest conversation with the employee can enable bosses to gain a better understanding about the support they need and may, in turn, help to ease their return to work.”


2. Respect their wishes for confidentiality

While an open conversation can pay off when it comes to talking with an employee about their cancer and the support they need, the same shouldn’t be assumed when it comes to talking about it with their colleagues – even in the close working environments that can prevail in small businesses. Respecting how much the employee wants their colleagues to know can help them keep control over what is a very personal matter. It’s therefore alarming that, of the respondents who have managed an employee back to work in an organisation employing 10 to 49 people, over half (52 per cent) admitted they’d told the employee’s colleagues about their cancer without discussing it with them, as they thought their workmates should know about it.


3. Don’t make assumptions about their abilities

Employees can feel pressured to quickly return to their previous hours and workloads after having a serious illness such as cancer. While this may be fine for some employees, it might leave others feeling physically and emotionally drained. An assumption that employees wouldn’t be ready to resume their responsibilities is perhaps why half of the small business managers we surveyed who’ve managed an employee back to work, unilaterally decided to reduce the employee’s responsibilities without their agreement. Similarly, 78 per cent gave the employee a different role on their return to work, which seems to have been counterproductive as 64 per cent of them said the employee didn’t like it.

Evelyn Wallace continues, “Every person is different and managers – despite good intentions – should never make assumptions about what the employee is able to do. Instead, it’s far better to ask them and then establish what adjustments can be made – for example to their place or hours of work or to their responsibilities. While a change of role might be appropriate, it must be agreed by the employee to avoid discriminating against them because of their cancer.”


4. Be flexible

It can take time to recover from any serious illness and each person will want to handle things differently. Indeed, our research of 500 adults who have or have had cancer and returned to work** revealed that 40 per cent said they felt scared, anxious or nervous about the prospect of going back to work. It is important to remember that they may need time off work for appointments, treatment and recovery, so don’t expect an orderly or formulaic return to work.

Iain McMillan, Director of SME, AXA PPP healthcare, comments: “Small business bosses often have the advantage of being able to put in place flexible arrangements to help employees return to – and stay at – work after they’ve been absent. Managers may also have a close working relationship with their employees, meaning they’re ideally placed to identify when an employee needs support and then establish what flexibility can be arranged. The key to putting in place such support is managers feeling able and comfortable in having an open and frank conversation with the employee.”

Download AXA PPP healthcare’s Manager guide to speaking about cancer here. You can also find information on the AXA PPP healthcare website:

www.axappphealthcare.co.uk/speakcancer - and join the conversation using #LetsSpeakCancer.

*Research was conducted by OnePoll in September 2016. Total sample was 500 managers who manage someone who has, or has had, cancer. 10 of the managers surveyed worked for organisations employing 2 to 9 people, 82 worked for organisations employing 10 to 49 people, 131 worked for organisations employing 50 to 249 people, 61 worked for organisations employing 50 to 999 people and 122 worked for organisations employing 1000 or more people.

**Research was conducted by OnePoll in September 2016. Total sample size was 500 adults who suffer/have suffered with cancer and returned to work.


Further information

Notes to editors



Ben Faulkner/John DuBois AXA PPP healthcare press office 01892 612822

About AXA PPP healthcare

AXA PPP healthcare – one of the largest and most experienced private medical insurance providers in the UK – has been helping people to access healthcare services since 1940. Today it forms the UK healthcare arm of AXA and provides cover for medical and dental care for individuals and employers, and employee wellbeing, counselling, occupational health and rehabilitation services through its specialist Health Services division.        AXA PPP healthcare has been named the Best Healthcare Provider for three years running in the Your Money Awards and, in June 2015, was awarded the prestigious accolade of European Large Contact Centre of the Year at the 2015 European Contact Centre & Customer Service Awards, followed in September 2015 by the Best Customer Experience accolade in the Large Contact Centre category of the UK Customer Experience Awards 2015.

About AXA

The AXA Group is a worldwide leader in insurance and asset management, with 166,000 employees serving 107 million clients in 64 countries. In 2016, IFRS revenues amounted to Euro 100.2 billion and IFRS underlying earnings to Euro 5.7 billion. AXA had Euro 1,429 billion in assets under management as of December 31, 2016. In 2016 Interbrand ranked AXA the 1st insurance brand worldwide for the 8th consecutive year.

In the UK AXA operates through a number of business units including: AXA Insurance, AXA PPP healthcare and AXA Ireland. AXA employs over 10,000 staff in the UK. The AXA ordinary share is listed on compartment A of Euronext Paris under the ticker symbol CS (ISN FR 0000120628 – Bloomberg: CS FP – Reuters: AXAF.PA). AXA’s American Depository Share is also quoted on the OTC QX platform under the ticker symbol AXAHY. 

The AXA Group is included in the main international SRI indexes, such as Dow Jones Sustainability Index (DJSI) and FTSE4GOOD.

It is a founding member of the UN Environment Programme’s Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) Principles for Sustainable Insurance and a signatory of the UN Principles for Responsible Investment.